Parley from The Pit

©Marc Wickert 2004
photos © The Pit

Born in New York City on November 21, 1959, John Hackleman was raised in Honolulu, Hawaii, from age four until he turned twenty-four. Whilst at school, John was not interested in the more traditional American sports that lured most kids his age, such as baseball, gridiron and basketball.

"Back when I was about eight or nine years of age I started doing Judo – mainly for self defence and to learn how to fight. Martial arts was all I ever did. In high school I was already a Golden Gloves boxer and I was fighting in kickboxing. That was my whole sporting thing. Judo was my first style and then I did Shotokan Karate. I continued with Judo for a little while and was doing Kaju Kenbo at the same time. I stayed with my instructor, Walter Godin, from when I was nine or ten until he died two years ago," says Hackleman.

A mixture of Karate, Judo, Kempo and boxing, Kaju Kenbo originated in Hawaii in 1947. The system was created by five martial artists who wanted to improve their street-fighting techniques, and the style has grown in popularity internationally ever since.

Due to his outstanding contribution to the art, 10th degree black belt John Hackleman will be inducted into the Kaju Kenbo Hall of Fame in July, 2004.

"In 1985, when I moved from Hawaii to California, I switched it from Kaju Kenbo to Hawaiian Kempo. I added some things to it, took away some things and started calling it Hawaiian Kempo. I took out the katas and the forms and I threw in more natural fighting techniques and conditioning. Now that’s my style. Like if you see Chuck (Liddell) with the tattoo on his arm, that’s the logo for my school."

Hackleman says back in the ‘90s other martial artists began calling their style Hawaiian Kenpo, but he is the only instructor to spell his Hawaiian Kempo with an ‘m’. In Japanese, the letters ‘m’ and ‘n’ have the same symbol, so the art can be spelt either way. John has been spelling his art as Kempo since 1985.

"Ours is a little more hardcore. In Hawaiian Kenpo they still do forms and stuff like that. When you see the guys such as Chuck fighting, that’s Hawaiian Kempo. Mine has always been a mixed martial art ever since I started it."

John Hackleman holding pads for Chuck Liddell

Whilst still living in Honolulu, John served in the United States Army from 1979 – ’82. "I actually joined up because of the hostage situation in Iran. I thought it was time to go. But by the time I got out of basic training, the hostages were released. And I was like, ‘Shit! I’m stuck in the army with nothin’ to do.’ Then when I arrived at my duty station, I got really lucky. The guys that were in charge of me - my captain and my first sergeant, they knew that I boxed. So they said, ‘Why don’t you try joining the army boxing team, and then that’s all you’ll have to do.’ They actually helped me get on the team, and for the rest of my time in the service all I did was box."

During his time on the US Army boxing team, Hackleman won the state and regional Golden Gloves and numerous national titles. This success led to his turning pro and fighting for Don King. John achieved a record of 20 fights with 17 wins: 15 by knockout.

Having developed a reputation for being super-fit and a very hard man, Hackleman then chose to pursue a career in kickboxing. And as with everything he does, through his willpower, determination and general warrior spirit, John pushed the boundaries of his new fighting art, and was rated the world’s # 1 kickboxer in the ’80s.

In 1986 Hackleman opened his now renowned gym, The Pit, and immediately attracted some of the world’s best fighters. While working as a registered nurse, John also ran The Pit, and made it a place where people could learn a no-nonsense martial art and conditioning program. "I never let lack of money come between you and Kempo. All I ask is that you give Kempo and The Pit the respect and loyalty it gives you. Confidence, loyalty, and humility are what I expect from all Pit Monsters," became John’s motto.

When John did open The Pit to the general public, he came up with the style name of KuZen to help water down his school’s image. "We then opened for kids and families, and we thought it was a little harsh calling it The Pit. And a lot of mothers could have been turned off by it…plus I have the skeleton-looking guy logo, which is kind of scary…So just to tone it down a little bit, we started calling it KuZen.

"KuZen is a name I thought of. Ku is the god of war in Hawaii, and then Zen is for Zen Buddhism. It’s basically the yin and yang, hard and soft. Yeah, and believe it or not, a lot of us do get philosophical like that once in a while. But the Ku is the god of war and that’s the hard guy, that’s like my Pit guy."

Hackleman also worked as a bouncer and as a bodyguard in Los Angeles. "I was a bouncer off and on a lot when I was in college. And then even after I became a nurse, I worked as a bouncer just kinda for fun on the weekends. The bodyguard work was very boring, but the bouncing was exciting. It was a rowdy club and there was always action there. We’d just hang out at a bar and get paid to do what the drunk guys got thrown out and arrested for. We got to do it and were paid for it.

"It was actually kinda fun. In fact, Chuck Liddell was a bouncer for years. He just stopped being a bouncer a couple of years ago, I think. Now he has a school up at SLO (San Luis Obispo), about twenty miles north of me, and I have mine down at Arroyo Grande. We have two different schools with different specialties."

John says the fighters who train at The Pit and those training at Chuck Liddell’s and Scott Adam’s SLO gym go backwards and forwards, training at both gyms, but only represent one gym when they fight. Although Chuck owns SLO Kickboxing School, he represents The Pit each time he competes.

Prior to the start of UFC 47, John was hanging on the Octagon fence talking to Chuck. After offering Liddell a drink of water, John drank the majority of the bottle’s contents himself. "Well you know why?…I was more nervous than Chuck. Chuck didn’t get nervous for that fight. I kept trying to psych him out, and he just kept laughing the whole time.

"Even walking into the ring - you watch it – he was laughing. He turned around to me, ‘John, I’m going to knock him out. I guarantee it.’ I’ve never had that much confidence before a fight, much less have I’ve seen any of my other guys with that much confidence.

"I wanted him to get out there and not counter-punch like he tried to do against Randy Couture. We were getting off first in this one. We were initiating all the flurries. We were initiating right off the bat. If the guy even threw one punch in sparring, as you’ll see, Chuck had to go right back at him and not try to counter-punch. And I kept trying to tell Chuck that, and he kept saying, ‘Come on, John, I’m gonna knock him out. I guarantee I’m gonna knock him out.’ I tried to tell him, but he said, ‘John, settle down.’ I was much more nervous than he was," laughs Hackleman.

When Chuck Liddell defeated Tito Ortiz by knockout at UFC 47: It’s On! he appeared to have a totally different game plan from when he lost against Randy Couture in UFC 43: Meltdown. But Hackleman says there wasn’t any major change in strategy for Chuck’s fight against Tito.

"Did you see Rocky III? Remember when Stalone began winning his fights and all of a sudden he started training kinda fancy? He was just like kissing babies, hugging people and having pictures taken and signing autographs all the time. He got a little mentally soft, and then he went in against Clubber Lane and got KO’d.

"Well I feel Chuck was getting a little sidetracked. And Dana White was using him for a lot of publicity stuff. Chuck was spending most of his training time in Vegas signing autographs, kissing babies…living that life instead of what we’ve always done at The Pit: hardcore, hard-nosed training. That’s what The Pit is known for. I mean, The Pit’s in my backyard. It’s just a little gym with a bag and a cage, but…"

John says for the Liddell v Ortiz fight, both Chuck and he believed they’d have to go back to the basics. They knew their approach had been on track in the past and that they’d have to return to employing these same training principles.

"For this fight we agreed we’d have to go back to what worked and back to the old school. And we just put him in the backyard and started working his arse off every day like we used to. Nothing fancy, just punching the bag, sparring, hardcore running…just like the old days. And that’s all he did: nothing fancy, nothing new." 

(In the middle of this interview, Hackleman is conveying how he was in Matt Lindland’s corner for the Lindland v Tony Fryklund bout at BJ Penn’s Rumble on the Rock tournament in Hawaii, when he gets a call from Matt.)

"Can you hold on a second? That’s Matt Lindland on the phone now…Which fight?…Okay, we’ll talk about it…So is that hush-hush or can we mention it?…All right…And that’s in August?…All right, let me call you right back.

"Matt’s going to fight David Terrell in August at UFC. So you’re the first to know," laughs John.

John Hackleman & Joe Lewis

John’s predictions for UFC 48:

Tim Sylvia v Frank Mir?

"Ah shit! That’s a tough one, man. Ah, I’ll go with Sylvia. I think he hits too hard…And I don’t think he’ll get caught." 

Ken Shamrock v Kino Leopoldo?

"Ah shit, I don’t know. I’ll go with Ken for that one." 

Phil Baroni v Evan Tanner?

"Ah… Ah, man, that’s a tough one, but you know I’m affiliated with Team Quest, so I’m going to have to go with Evan. That’s going to be a brutal war though, I think."

Any other predictions, John?

"I’m looking for some big things from Matt. He trains with us. And Chuck… I think he’s going to win a title real soon. I feel it’s his time right now. It looks like he’ll be fighting the winner of Couture v Belfort, and to be honest, I don’t see anybody beating Chuck if he fights the way he fought Tito. He was just too on."

"Chuck just got back from Hawaii. He did a seminar there. He’s been with me for 13 years and he’s never been anything but a friggin’ great guy. And he’s a great dad."

John Hackleman with Walter Godin

For more on John Hackleman:

For info on UFC 48: Pay Back 
- home of Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) and Self-Defense articles.



Thanks for visiting knucklepit. Be sure to come back soon for new UFC, MMA, & Self Defense articles.

return to feature stories

top of page